Defeating The Tamil Tigers


In the early 1980s, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched an armed insurgency against the government of Sri Lanka.  The purpose of the insurgency was to create a separate Tamil state in the northeast part of the island.  The war dragged on for several decades, until reformed tactics by the government were able to bring the war to a successful conclusion in 2009.

This was not a negligible achievement.  Conventional wisdom says that armed insurgencies are almost impossible to defeat on the battlefield.  The Tamil Tigers, furthermore, were a dedicated and capable organization:  they pioneered the use of the explosive body belt, the use of female suicide attackers, and they even possessed naval and air capabilities.

How was the government able to destroy the LTTE?  We will examine some of the reasons.  As we have noted in these pages before, it is possible to defeat a rebel force if the right tactics are used.  We have previously examined the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s as an example of this.  From my study of the conflict, these points emerge in stark clarity:

Negotiation Is Not An End In Itself

Conventional wisdom says that governments need to negotiate the end of insurgencies.  Even as late as 2006, a retired Sri Lankan general was telling the public that “There is no armed resolution to the conflict.  The government cannot win the war against the Tamil rebels.”  There is some evidence that these calls for cease-fire and negotiations were the result of infiltration by the LTTE into the government.

All through the 1990s and early 2000s, the parties had entered into cease-fire and negotiations, only to have them collapse soon after.  The LTTE had no incentive to maintain such cease-fire, since it felt as if it were winning the war.

Know The Enemy’s Limitations

Only about 12% of the Sri Lankan population were Tamils, and of these, only about 300,000 were said to be supporting the rebels.  Thus, the LTTE had a finite reserve of manpower to deal with, and this was a fact that the government could exploit.  They could grind the rebels down on the battlefield by destroying their command structure and winning over the rank-and-file.

Look After The Money

The government in the early 2000s decided to make a coordinated international effort to cut off the LTTE’s funding.  The new anti-terrorism environment helped it in this regard.  Domestically, the government decided to allocate 4% of its budget to military spending (a large increase), which was part of a massive mobilization effort.

Win Over The Public

The government continued or expanded poverty eradication efforts.  There had been a perception in the 1990s that corruption and ineptitude would cancel out any gains made by the government on the battlefield.  This changed dramatically by the mid-2000s.  By 2008, the Sri Lankan Army was recruiting about 3000 soldiers per month, which was an impressive figure.

Improve The Military Tactics

Working with the government’s overall grand strategy was a much improved focus on military tactics.  A large unit of the LTTE had defected in 2006, and this proved to be a huge benefit to the government.  For the first time, detailed and actionable intelligence had been gathered on how the LTTE organized itself and mounted operations.


At the unit level, there was an increased focus on special forces operations to target and destroy the command structure of the rebels at all levels.  The armed used small, highly trained, and highly motivated teams in this regard.  Previously, the LTTE had been able to operate all over Sri Lanka; but they eventually became confined to an ever-dwindling area of operations.

Tune Out The Media

The international media ignored the conflict in Sri Lanka, for the most part, in comparison with armed insurgencies elsewhere.  But when it did turn its attention to the conflict, it was usually only to decry the number of casualties involved.  But wars by their very nature are cruel; and the best way to end the cruelty is to bring them to a conclusion.  The government was right to ignore the media’s calls for a negotiated end to the conflict.

Secure The Diplomatic Front

On the diplomatic front, the government coordinated its moves with the Indian government.  Much funding for the LTTE came from the Indian mainland, and it was essential to have the Indian government’s assistance in cutting off this supply.  Previously, corruption and sloth had prevented Sri Lanka from taking this step.

Since the war ended in 2009, the GDP of the island has risen at least 8%, and the economy continues to improve.  It was an unqualified success by the government, and shows that the right tactics and the right strategy can produce brilliant outcomes.

Sri Lanka can thus claim to join that small fraternity of nations–along with Algeria and Peru–that have grappled with and defeated dedicated armed insurgencies within their borders.  The lessons to nations seeking to duplicate this feat are clear:  analyze the situation, get a comprehensive grand strategy in place, be ruthless in carrying it out, and do not be deflected by the media.


Read More:  Civil War In Algeria:  The Black Decade


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